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Jonathan “JB” Burns can hit a racquetball at about 160 mph, which is faster than a Category 4 hurricane and nearly twice as swift as a major-league fastball.
The force that flows from Burns’ right arm is a big reason why he and his father, Marc Burns, won at the U.S. Open Racquetball National Championships earlier this month at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
They prevailed in the top amateur Centurion Division, which stipulates that the combined age of the doubles team equals at least 100.
JB, a personal injury attorney in Delray Beach, is 39. Marc, a retired administrator who worked 32 years for Miami Dade College, is 67.
“My son is phenomenal — he’s almost always the best player on the court whenever we play,” Marc said. “Our strategy was very sophisticated. Let JB hit every ball possible.”
Marc was kidding about the sophistication of the plan but not about the strategy.
While Marc is an outstanding player for his age, JB is a superb racquetball talent, just barely below pro level.
In Minneapolis, JB showed his blistering strokes. On game point, he hit a terrific serve followed by a stinging forehand and then a backhand that was smashed so fast and so low on the wall that it left no possibility for a return. Marc never took a swing on that point, barely moving except to celebrate.
Harder than it looks
Racquetball, for the uninitiated, takes significant hand-eye coordination, power, anticipation, quickness and stamina.
And, as it turns out, some of the uninitiated have included JB’s buddies.
“My friends thought racquetball was for old guys with short shorts and tall socks,” JB said. “But when they came out to watch, they came away impressed with the athleticism and speed of the game.”
Marc, a native of Brooklyn, took up racquetball in his 20s, after moving to South Florida.
“I fell in love with all the angles and the geometry of the sport,” Marc said. “I find it endlessly fascinating.”
JB, who played high school basketball at Miami Killian, first started playing racquetball at age 17.
“Once I figured out I wasn’t going to be the next Glen Rice or whoever the Miami Heat star was at the time,” JB said, “that’s when I picked up racquetball.”
JB, who graduated from law school at St. Thomas University, said he didn’t get serious about racquetball until his mid 20s. He and his dad became a natural doubles team, but the pairing is about much more than racquetball.
In other words, when your partner misses a shot or can’t get to a ball, a good teammate offers encouragement and not blame.
“Part of being a great doubles player is a being a great partner,” Marc said. “We all make mistakes.”
Marc and JB have had a long time to work on their partnership — they’ve been playing together for nearly two decades, including three straight years, from 2014-16, when they made it to at least the semifinals of the U.S. Open at Minneapolis before losing.
It’s a single-elimination tournament, and Marc and JB lost excruciatingly close matches in 2014, when they fell 15-14, 15-14, and again in 2015, when they were beaten 15-14, 12-15, 11-10.
This year, though, brought the breakthrough. They prevailed 15-14, 13-15, 11-9 over Troy VanBemmelen from Nebraska and Daniel Pflaster of Kansas.
VanBemmelen, playing with a different partner, had defeated the Burns men in 2014 and 2016, so this was “sweet revenge,” Marc said.
After the match was over, Marc, who plays with protective braces on both knees and around his back, embraced his son.
“I was choked up for 20 minutes,” Marc said. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. To win a national championship with my son was priceless.”